Miami Chance Evans has a story like many others these days.
He was a specialist in the U.S. Army when he returned home from Operation Iraqi Freedom four years ago. He bounced from job to job after leaving the military, eventually being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. With a wife and two children, very little money coming in and an arduous transition to civilian living, life has not been easy.
“With bills and keeping the family together, it’s been very difficult,” he said. “I’m doing a little better now, but the last two or three years, it’s been really rough.”
Pat Riley cringes when he hears stories like those.
On Friday, the Miami Heat president and Basketball Hall of Famer surprised the Evans clan and five other families of those who have recently returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan with a holiday party. They toured the Heat’s Championship Alley, had lunch and a meet-and-greet with players, then received presents and gasoline, restaurant and store gift cards.
“It means the world,” said Kenya Evans, Chance’s wife. “When I got the phone call, it was the biggest blessing that we have ever, ever received. It makes you feel so good, and when other soldiers who are over there hear about it, it lets them know there’s somebody that really cares about honoring us when we come back.”
A team marketing official said Riley personally spent more than $10,000 on the event, part of the Heat’s HomeStrong initiative that he started nearly three years ago. Returning veterans are honored after the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at each Miami home game.
“Believe me, it’s very minor in comparison to what they deserve,” Riley said. “These are very proud people. These are families that are a little bit dire right now, for a lot of different reasons.”
Later, as the families opened presents — basketballs and action figures seemed to draw the highest praise from the kids — Riley pointed to another Army soldier, a mother named Spc. Elizabeth Toledo whose young son has endured more than a dozen operations.
“We’ve honestly lost count,” said Toledo, whose son Devin was born with intestinal organs outside his body. “But this, it’s pretty much a very nice ending to a very rough year.”
Toledo and her son couldn’t contain their smiles as they sat on a leather couch and tore through wrapping paper.
“That’s what this thing is about,” Riley said.
The families were selected by the Miami VA Healthcare System and the United States Southern Command. So far, more than 200 soldiers have been recognized by the Heat since returning home from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, and in some cases, both nations.
All six returning soldiers and their families were on the floor for Friday’s festivities before the Heat hosted the Chicago Bulls, and some fans offered the soldiers handshakes as they walked off the court.
“It means a lot,” said Army Sgt. Markelle Tucker, who brought wife LaTeaca and their four children, ranging from age 3 to 8.